About the discipline
Chemistry and religion both give structure and order to the universe, helping people to understand the constitution of the natural world; how, why and what results when we interact; and providing a sense of certainty and inevitability for those who trust in the principles.
Religious and philosophical beliefs (Christianity in Europe; Islam in the Middle East, Africa and Spain; and Confucianism in China) early on gave their followers a belief in an ordered state of the universe and sense of comprehensibility about the world. Christianity and Islam drew on classical Greek philosophies of an “ordered world.” Confucianism described an intrinsically harmonious world, with a balance between two elements of opposite qualities, yin and yang. Confucians believed the universe is made up of five elements: fire, earth, metal, water and wood, which transform into each other, making the universe dynamic.
Such beliefs led to the practice of alchemy, first in China and then in the Middle Ages in Europe and the Middle East. Alchemists viewed their materials as expressions of the fundamental principles that ordered the world. They hoped that by manipulating those principles, they could create new substances, turn base metals into gold or distill an “elixir of life.” Alchemists developed techniques such as sublimation and distillation, as well as equipment to perform techniques and advance knowledge of the chemicals they used. Their experimentation was based on belief in the universe’s divine order.
Early Muslim scientists’ exploration of the elements led to understanding of the constitution of matter. A number of terms used in chemistry, such as alcohol, alembic, alkali and elixir, are of Islamic origin. “Alchemy,” as well as its derivative, “chemistry,” come from the Arabic word “al-Kimiya’.” Some scholars link the introduction of the “scientific method” to early Muslim chemist Jabir ibn-Hayyan.
The work of early Christian chemists such as Roger Bacon and Robert Boyle has also informed modern science. Bacon believed Christianity and experimentation went hand in hand because God created everything and imbued it with his order and harmony. Boyle saw the world as a marvelous creation of God, and also believed in objective observation in research. While experimenting with air, Boyle began promoting his atomic theory, the foundation for modern understanding of matter. He formulated what is now known as Boyle’s Law, that the volume of a quantity of gas varies inversely with the pressure when the temperature is constant. In 1661, he overturned Aristotle’s concept of the four elements (everything is composed of earth, air, fire and water), replacing it with the modern idea of an element as a substance that cannot be separated into simpler components by chemical methods. He believed that the study and dominion of nature is a duty given to man by God — based on the scriptural mandate in Gen. 1:28: to “rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the Earth” – and that the universe works in accordance with the laws of nature, established by God for its order and control.
By the late 19th century, scientists pondering faith and new theories about the natural world such as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, found evidence both of God’s plan in the elements and chemistry, and support for their faith in the sciences. Writing in “Religion and Chemistry” in 1880, Josiah Parsons Cooke, founder of the Harvard Chemistry Department, based his belief in proof of God’s plan on the premises that “everything which begins to exist must have a cause;” “that a combination of means conspiring to a particular end implies intelligence;” “that design may be traced from its effects;” and “that there are evidences of design in the universe.” Cooke believed in both the scriptural truth of Gen 1:1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” as well as that there is “evidence of design in the properties of the chemical elements alone.” He also marveled at the attributes of the atmosphere, whose properties seemed uniquely to serve “the welfare and happiness of mankind.” He believed that the evidences of God in nature, including the human soul, “are the only proof we have or can have of his existence.”
Chemist and author Primo Levi tackled chemistry, faith and human nature in several of his writings, most notably, “The Periodic Table,” published in 1975, in which he used Russian chemist Dmitriy Mendeleyev’s periodic table of elements as the basis of autobiographical meditations, including on his experience as a Jew imprisoned at Auschwitz during World War II. The books’ 21 pieces are each named after a chemical element, through which Levi assessed his life experience. “The properties of elements often reflect the properties of life itself — volatile, inert, lustrous, precious, poisonous, brittle …,” he wrote. “Argon” is an homage to the author’s Jewish ancestors. “Vanadium” represents Levi’s encounter with a former official in Auschwitz, who was the chief of the laboratory. “Zinc,” a “boring” metal, explores the fascist myth of racial purity.
Levi was not religiously observant, but Fascist race laws and the Nazi camps made him identify with his Judaism. Chemistry was of genuine spiritual importance to him. In “Hydrogen,” Levi wrote, “For me chemistry represented an indefinite cloud of future potentialities which enveloped my life to come in black volutes torn by fiery flashes, like those which had hidden Mount Sinai. Like Moses, from that cloud I expected my law, the principle of order in me, around me, and in the world… I would watch the buds swell in spring, the mica glint in the granite, my own hands, and I would say to myself: ‘I will understand this, too, I will understand everything.’”
Debate will continue over the role of religious origin of life and the universe and how it ought to be taught. Polls show most Americans believe God was involved in the creation of Earth and the universe, and that they are dismayed that biblical perspectives on creation are not taught at many public schools. Researchers can understand the perspectives of religious believers, the role religious and philosophical thought has played in development of the science, and the perspectives of researchers who come from a religious perspective. Chemists also can be aware of ethical concerns in their field, such as the integrity of the research process; the environmental consequences of their work; and the health and welfare of co-workers, consumers and the community, to advance science while also protecting the environment and human life.
- “Beyond Evolution: Addressing Broad Interactions Between Science and Religion in Science Teacher Education” by Joseph W. Shane, Ian C. Binns, Lee Meadows, Ronald S. Hermann and Matthew J. Benus. Journal of Science Teacher Education. 27 no. 2 (2016): 165-181.
- “Can the Effects of Religion and Spirituality on Both Physical and Mental Health be Scientifically Measured? An Overview of the Key Sources, with Particular Reference to the Teachings of Said Nursi” by Mahshid Turner. Journal Of Religion And Health. 54 no. 6 (2015): 2045-51.
- “Depression and God: the effects of major depressive disorder on theology and religious identity” by Stephen J. Sorenson. Pastoral Psychology. 62 no. 3 (2013): 343-353.
- “Enhancing Teachers’ Awareness about Relations between Science and Religion” by Alexandra Bagdonas and Cibelle Celestino Silva. Science & Education. 24 no. 9 (2015): 1173-1199.
- “Joseph Priestley Across Theology, Education, and Chemistry: An Interdisciplinary Case Study in Epistemology with a Focus on the Science Education Context” by KC de Berg. Science & Education. 20 no. 7-8 (2011): 805-p830.
- “Perspectives on the Origins of Life in Science Textbooks from a Christian Publisher: Implications for Teaching Science” by Geilsa Costa Santos Baptista, Rodrigo de Silva Santos and William W. Coburn. International Journal of Science & Mathematics Education. 14 (2016): 309-326.
- “Recommending a child enter a STEM career: The role of religion” by Christopher P. Scheitle and Elaine Howard Ecklund. Journal of Career Development. 44 no. 3 (2017): 251-265.
- “Science and Religion: Lessons From History?” by John Brooke, Science, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Vol. 282, Dec. 11, 1998.
- “The feasibility of educating trainee science teachers in issues of science and religion” by Michael Poole. Cultural Studies of Science Education. 11 no. 2 (2016): 273-281.
- “The Nature of the Arguments for Creationism, Intelligent Design, and Evolution” by Ralph M. Barnes, Rebecca A. Church and Samuel Draznin-Nagy. Science & Education. 26 no. 1-2 (2017): 27-47.
- “Ways to prepare future teachers to teach science in multicultural classrooms” by Berry Billingsley. Cultural Studies of Science Education. 11 no. 2 (2016): 283-291.
- Recent Themes in the History of Science and Religion: Historians in Conversation. Donald A. Yerxa (ed.). The University of South Carolina Press, 2010.
- Chemistry, as Exemplifying the Wisdom and Beneficence of God. George Fownes, London: John Churchill, 1844.
- The Chemical Catechism, with Notes, Illustrations and Experiments. Samuel Parkes, London: Lackington Allen, 1808.
- Religio Chemici: Essays. George Wilson. London: Macmillan, 1862.
- Reconstructing Nature: the Engagement of Science and Religion. John H. Brooke and Geoffrey Cantor. Edinburgh, UK: T&T Clark, 1998.
- Chemistry, Meteorology, and the Function of Digestion, Considered With Reference to Natural Theology. William Prout. London: William Pickering, 1834.
- The Chemistry of Common Life. James F. W. Johnston. Edinburgh, Scotland: Blackwood, 1855.
- Religion And Chemistry; Or, Proofs Of God’s Plan In The Atmosphere And Its Elements. Josiah Parsons Cooke. BiblioLife, 2009.
- Science and Religion: A Critical Survey. Holmes Rolston. New York: Random House, 1987.
- Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation. John Haught. Paulist, 1995.
- Religion and chemistry: A re-statement of an old argument. Josiah Parsons Cooke C. Scribner’s sons, 1886.
- LSD, Spirituality, and the Creative Process: Based on the Groundbreaking Research of Oscar Janiger, M.D. Marlene Dobkin de Rios Ph.D. and Oscar Janiger M.D. Park Street Press, 2003.
- Magic Mushrooms in Religion and Alchemy. Clark Heinrich. Park Street Press, 2002.
- A Science and Religion Primer. Heidi A. Campbell and Heather Looy (eds.) Supported by a grant from the Templeton Publishing Subsidy. BakerAcademic, 2009.
- Science and religion: some historical perspectives. John Hedley Brooke. Cambridge University Press, 1991.
- Why the Science and Religion Dialogue Matters: Voices from the International Society for Science and Religion. Fraser Watts and Kevin Dutton. International Society for Science and Religion. Published by Templeton Foundation Press, 2006
- Reinventing the Sacred. Stuart Kauffman. Basic Books, 2008.
- “The interaction of students’ scientific and religious discourses: two case studies” by Roth Wolff-Michael. International Journal of Science Education, 1464-5289, Volume 19, Issue 2, 1997, Pages 125-146.
- Science and Religion: An Overview (Chapter 9, Case Studies in Science and Religion) by Alister E. McGrathWiley-Blackwell, 1999
Codes of ethics
- American Institute of Chemical Engineers – Code of Ethics
- The Chemical Professional’s Code of Conduct – American Chemical Society
- Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America – Principles for Conduct in Clinical Trials (.pdf)
- American Pharmacists Association – Mission and Value Statements
- American Chemical Society – “Professional Ethics and Moral Responsibility in Chemistry”
Professional associations and faith groups
- American Scientific Affiliation: A Fellowship of Christians in Science
- Association of Christian Engineers and Scientists: (503) 228-0779
- Christian Nuclear Fellowship
- Christians in Science
- Canadian Science and Christian Affiliation
- European Society for the Study of Science and Theology
- Fellowship of Scientists
- International Muslim Association of Scientists & Engineers